The Black Swan (2010) Ascends

Auteur Darren Aronofksy’s The Black Swan, his fifth in just over a decade, is a superb psychodrama rooted in character, corralled by the specter of perfectionism and the reality of failure. Reminiscent of his debut film, PI (1998) Aronofsky turns things up a notch as all films and filmmakers should strive, to burn away the creations that came before and build upon the ashes.  Clawed and scratched from the dressing room walls and mirrored practice spaces of the ballet, all is immediately not as it seems.  This is a place of physical and emotional desolation, a womb of absolute dedication; a place where craft is surreptitiously burned into every muscle, every gesture – the resentment and commitment so complete as to penetrate bone and flesh as easily as any shard of glass or fingernail.  Eyes tell the story as much as anything in an Aronofsky film, the slow sometimes-inevitable disturbance of normalcy as the realization of desire takes over the senses.  We cannot help ourselves but remember, at times, our own squabbles in the playgrounds of our youth as the childishness of the ballerinas’ surface and adolescent confrontations verge on maturity and gnaw with competitiveness.  However, the brutality that is often lost in playgrounds and behind curtains is shorn open here, gathered in mirrors and psychosis; everyone is vying for the top, even mothers and directors, but there is a price for all that desire and the cost here is frequently of the mind, the body and the soul.

Above the Line: Practical movie reviews with Rory DeanThe story begins with a dance company at the New York Lincoln Center as the current, aging prima ballerina (Winona Ryder) is retired by the artistic director (Vincent Cassel) and sets his sights on young, virginal Nina (Natalie Portman) to replace her.  Tension is flammable and deservedly so as Nina, sheltered as much as directed by her mother (Barbara Hershey) a former ballerina obsessed with former glory, struggles to mature in order to capture the essence of the role of the Swan Queen in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.  Yet her perseverance and sacrifice lands the role, though scrutinized immediately by Cassel’s overbearing direction.  He is quick to point out the opposing sensibilities of the role, innocence for the White Swan and a deeper, more fully realized sense of sexuality and sensuality for the Black Swan.  What ensues is a battle that blurs the lines between reality and paranoia, between the shattering walls of Nina’s sexual awakening and the overt physical guidance of the artistic director, her mother, and another young dancer (Mila Kunis) who are all willing to lose everything for the hope of gaining the intangible and fleeting object of their dreams.

The Black Swan is a brooding and emotionally exhausted wasteland where age and beauty compete with perfection and the inescapable reality where failure and success remain feuding Sisyphean companions.  Aronofsky is as confident as he is comfortable with this landscape, his previous films are careful periscopes plumbing the crumbles of characters consumed by desires and often sidetracked by the means they employ to achieve them.  There is no denying Aronofsky’s technique though not everyone will be prepared for the journey as has come to be his hallmark: the descent that like his previous work, is a one-way roller coaster picking up speed, plummeting toward an inevitable collision with the ground.  It is common to feel broken after an Aronofsky film, battered and bruised like his characters, shakily rising, if you are lucky, to reflect on the experience as you leave the theater.  Yet the experience follows you, you carry it with you deep down in your gut where things will settle for a little while like knots labeled however irrational, however close to the surface.  The Black Swan is more of an experience than a film, an event where you participate and take something more away when you leave.

Vincent Cassel is the quintessential artistic director, Thomas Leroy.  His charm can only truly be equaled by his ability to engage and confront, to be gentle and brutal without as much as a second between them.  Natalie Portman breathes the role of Nina, slowly marrying naiveté and carnalism as two sides of a malleable and over-zealous young girl made transparent so that the result is tantalizing and unquenchable.  There will be no questioning Portman’s vivere (living) in this character and in so doing has all but erased from memory her earlier stumblings in those space movies.  Portman astounds with her performance as much as her sacrifices, the tremendous preparation (10 months I have read) and poise to play the role of Prima Ballerina Assoluta is amazing and should serve her well during the awards season – and rightfully so.  Aronofsky’s aesthetic is that of a painter with grace and specificity, the tooling of a master artisan who embraces the language of cinema like few other American filmmakers working these days.

About rorydean

Rory Dean is a multi-medium artist, writer and new media strategist with a background as a creative consultant and technology liaison in the San Francisco Bay Area. His broad experiences and specialties include print-to-web publicity, promotions and design marketing using traditional and social media networks. As a motion pictures and television professional, his short films, productions and commercials have screened to domestic and international audiences. His connections to a diverse client base include artists, entertainers, corporations, non-profits and everyday people.. Dean is co-owner and founder of Dissave Pictures, a boutique production company focusing on audio, video, photography and multi-media designs. Dean's personal and professional background includes dreaming and avid notebook journaling, creative and copy writing, promotions and marketing, audio/video production, photography, videography, editing, web design and new media. He’s also a fan of collaboration and knows when to turn the reigns over, offer feedback, lead the team and step aside. His portfolio includes print, online, film, video, photography, graphic design and promotions. He’ll show you. He has a book and everything. "When not juggling various online worlds, I do a pretty good mime – but that’s another story."
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18 Responses to The Black Swan (2010) Ascends

  1. Tom Pyron says:

    I have only two complaints about the film:

    1. It became increasingly difficult for me to determine whether we were witnessing bouts with schizophrenia or the demons of self doubt. Being an actor and someone with neurological disease in the family, I can relate to both.
    2. The special effects seemed only slightly over the top for me, even though they were impeccably done.

    EVERYthing else is unquestionably stellar. After seeing “The Other Boleyn Girl,” I’ve continuously had faith in the depth and emotional intelligence of Portman. Lots of folks really don’t like her for various reasons, but she would be deserving of Best Actress this year in my opinion, but fear that the special effects problem make take away focus from her vote.

    If for no other reason, I bring up the “The King’s Speech” because I attended a screening immediately after Swan. Interestingly, the two films are (at their core) about exactly the same thing. Overcoming self doubt. One focuses on a dancer, the other a king. In both films, the characters are bent on overcoming their personal fears, no matter the personal cost, for a worthy cause. In both cases, their hard work paid off. One in an attempt to rally his nation, the other in an attempt to rally her confidence. Both leave behind a large piece of themselves and emerge anew.

    Excellent food for the actor, to which I am biased.

    Laptop battery is dying, cheers!

    • rorydean says:

      Hey Tom! Just back from watching True Grit. Amazing film, really high marks. I’m still buzzing from it. Stay tuned for the review!

      I have to agree that a number of lines were blurry in the movie, some purposeful and with intent, others less so and maybe left to their devices. I took note of them but wasn’t particularly distracted or annoyed – just more fodder for the post movie conversations.

      I was actually relieved that the FX was downplayed this go around – given the extent to which he explored so many different in-camera and post production work in Requiem. I think he probably struggled with wanting to do more but hopefully Matthew Libatique talked him out of things that would have been too heavy handed (I think they have a pretty solid relationship at this point, not to mention Libatique’s own growing repertoire).

      I think you’re right about Portman but it happens – stars seem to float the airways (necessarily so) where some land on their feet on others not so much. Some come back from the brink and we’re glad for it – others we’d rather forget.

      The King’s Speech is on my list – just watched the trailer, should be a smash!

      • Tom Pyron says:

        Ah, yes! “True Grit” definitely transcends. LOTS of buzz where I live about this “original” go around, living only an hour’s north of the real Fort Smith, AR. I caught that one opening night.

        Local rumors have it the Coen’s passed on filming in Arkansas because they couldn’t find the equipment and crew. I have a tendency to think there are other financially biased reasons as well, but nonetheless.

        Hailee Stienfeld nails it in this one, and I didn’t even recognize Barry Pepper until after I saw the film.

      • rorydean says:

        How are opening nights there? We tend to avoid them here as dealing with crowds aren’t my forte, especially those toting buckets of soda and popcorn and for some reason feel the need to stampede once the doors are opened. But it is difficult to wait and see some films! I’m interested in your thoughts on the financial bias given this film had a modest budget of $38 million. I know where the money goes for the $200 million dollar movies but I’m also annoyed at the excess.

        Yes, young Miss Stienfeld will hopefully have a wonderful career ahead of her and Pepper, I can’t wait for him to find his mark and get up front in a big picture. He has the chops!

      • Tom Pyron says:

        Responding to your question about opening nights in Arkansas:

        Depends on the city and the film, as with any market. True Grit sold out the 7pm show in my town, but no others to my knowledge. But, I live in a town of 58,000 according to 2008 census.

        True Grit is a one off though, since our proximity to Fort Smith likely affected opening night numbers positively, and market appreciation for the western would be quite lifted.

        I agree with you in that I have tendency to avoid the big crowds, but if you can sneak in a matinee for a mid-week opening, you can really score big on an sparsely populated theater. The late afternoon and early evening shows will have the bigger crowds. If it’s a weekend opening, I will often wait until the following Sunday or Saturday early matinee (usually the first run if I can catch it).

        But compared to West Coast openings, which I have attended, these openers are small events. Not nearly as much enthusiasm around movies here, although those who are enthusiastic are quite vibrant about it.

        The indy films that actually do come around (i.e. Winter’s Bone) hardly get any response except from the “industry aware” folks. I watched The Reader alone in my theater.

        So if you see me commenting on the bigger budget films, it’s because unfortunately, it takes a great deal of effort to catch the indies. A sad sad fact of the American market that the good folks at Film Movement have worked to resolve. Although, even I feel that their taste is often too obscure for the U.S. market.

        However, we do have one distributor in the local community that I speak to and he very rarely puts up films here. War Eagle was the last one, and even it didn’t perform financially in the local community.

  2. David Sturdevant says:

    Some great writing, Mr Dean. You have made me want to see a film that I’m sure I wouldn’t have otherwise. I look forward to reading more of our in-depth reviews.

  3. Rory.The Black Swan article you have written.Is the most intelligent review that I could have ever read on this incredible film…You as a film director,and writer does this film the justice that it deserves.Coming from you, I know your words were taken off the heavens of journalism.Thank you.James Wilkinson

  4. Rodney says:

    I’ve read enough on this film to make sure I see it when it comes out here in Australia – and don’t blame poor Natalie for her “fumblings” in George Lucas’s ego trip, I blame those godawful scripts she had to work with.

    As an actress, she’s blessed with both incomparable beauty (in the classic, movie-star sense) and a latent talent that just needs a strong director and decent script to draw her out.

    I admit to finding Arnonofsky a little aloof for my tastes, even though I adored Pi and Requiem For A Dream (in the way that makes me seem not quite sociopathic and more like a serious film critic “adore”, that is!) but The Fountain I had to give up about 30 minutes in because I just didn’t get it. I tried, though, I really did. The Black Swan is getting some rave reviews, and this, coupled with Portman’s imminent return to the Oscar stage (apparently) and the appearance of Mila Kunis (who, let’s face it, can play with MY kunis any day she damn well pleases!) have me itching to see this flick for myself.

    Rory, as usual a great review, and another captivating analysis to add to the growing list!

    • rorydean says:

      Glad to hear you’ve been reading positive reviews but I’d strongly suggest not reading too much. Inevitably you’re going to get too much information that stands a good chance of taking all the splendor and surprises and reducing them to plot point analysis (as many reviewers fall back on these days when they haven’t anything significant to say about a film). I’m not trying to sound arrogant in my ‘opinions’ just offering a salient observation. Of course Portman made the choice to do ‘those’ films and I in the past couple of years I’ve accepted the fact that a ‘pay check’ is a pay check. Good actors typically survive bad films whereas directors and producers have a much harder time being forgiven. That’s where the real blame is and, as you write, the script.

      Agreed. Aronofsky, like Christopher Nolan I think, are indeed aloof. Agreed about Requiem and The Fountain, the latter was simply a bad film no matter how good it looked. My thoughts on Kunis is that aside from her good looks this is the first film that she shines in outside That 70s Show. She’s finally grown up enough to realize good looks can only take you so far.

      Thanks and cheers, best in 2011!

  5. What a great word, “vivere.” This film is full of it. I have become a Natalie Portman fan. Check out the cover of The new York Times Magazine (12/12/10). She looks amazing!

  6. Anna says:

    Oh pease, and you talk about Cyrus. I agree that Cyrus is not that good, but Black Swan is so stupid that amde me laugh.

    • rorydean says:

      Hi Anna, thanks for your thoughts. I’m curious though, what made you draw a comparison between my review of Cyrus, which is clearly a bad film and quite indefensible even as a silly failed attempt at a romantic comedy, and The Black Swan which is not only a superior film purposefully realized and executed to great detail, but one that continues to garner attention and box office receipts?

      Maybe you’d care to elaborate on “stupid that made me laugh”? Did you like his previous films, Memento or Requiem for a Dream? What films to you consider good or rather what are your favorite films of say the last year or so?

      All comments, thoughts, and opinions are always welcomed here but it’s also helpful to expound on your observations.

  7. Hiya 🙂

    What is the best Natalie Portman movie??
    mine is Garden State and Anywhere but here

    • rorydean says:

      Thanks for the note. You pose a very interesting question on the even of Portman’s most recent film, Black Swan. I can’t help but recall her incredible performance in The Professional, but agree that Garden State overall was a good film – perhaps it might be best thought of as a middle ground or even preparation for greater things to come. Obviously I found Black Swan a deeply engaging, evocative film and as such am probably biased that this is indeed the best we’ve seen from her but definitely not the last. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

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